DOHA, Qatar – An unlikely ally and impeccable timing helped Japan snatch an unlikely victory from the jaws of defeat in Doha, Qatar, at an international trade meeting.

While early projections pointed to the easy passage of a proposal to ban the export of Atlantic bluefin tuna – a result that would have stung Japan as the main importer of the prized fish – some shrewd behind-the-scenes maneuvering set the stage for the proposal’s demise.

The beginning of the end for the proposal led by Monaco and the European Union was triggered by an outburst from the Libyan delegate at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES.

At a committee meeting Thursday in the Qatari capital, the Libyan delegate shouted his objection to the U.S.-backed proposal, saying it was “part of a conspiracy of developed countries.” His comment was a direct appeal to anti-West sentiment among developing countries.

The Libyan representative then called for the discussion to be wound up and an immediate vote held. The proposal to ban bluefin trade was then rejected.

However, Japan can take some credit for nudging Libya along on this matter.

Masanori Miyahara, chief counselor of the Fisheries Agency, secretly visited Libya to solicit the North African country’s support in opposing the bluefin tuna export ban at the CITES conference.

Though Libya initially had little more than a passing interest in the issue, Japan managed to persuade it to support Japan’s stance.

International meetings often expose confrontations between industrialized and developing countries. Japan’s interests usually run counter to those of developing countries. But this time, the government made meticulous preparations for the meeting and capitalized on developing countries’ frustrations against decision-making led by the United States and European countries.

This tactic worked brilliantly and led to the decision that Japan had been hoping for at the meeting.

The CITES meeting was also the arena for debate on a proposal to regulate the commercial shark trade.

This proposal had perturbed China, which uses shark as an ingredient in many dishes, including shark fin soup. The Chinese delegation was worried that moves to regulate bluefin tuna trade would galvanize attempts to do the same for sharks.

This prompted China to back Japan on the bluefin issue.

Japan’s cause also was helped by Iceland’s successful push to have the bluefin proposal put to a secret ballot. Fishing has long been the economic backbone of Iceland, which was against the bluefin tuna export ban and has applied for EU membership.

With European nations not presenting a unified front and China and other emerging nations and South Korea siding with Japan, the initially slim prospects of success swiftly gave way to a growing confidence that the proposal would be shot down.

Late Thursday, the day when discussions on the bluefin tuna export ban started at the conference, the ministry’s office dealing with the issue received a phone call from Doha. It was the news they had been waiting for.

“Monaco’s proposal was resoundingly defeated,” came the message down the line.


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